Cultural Reflexivity: The "Nacirema Essay" Introduction

Cultural reflexivity--or the ability to recognize the reality of cultural diversity in general, and one's own cultural membership in particular--is THE fundamental skill of professional anthropologists. One way to stimulate the development of such a skill is to trigger the application of "a view from afar" in the description of some aspects of the students' own culture, following the model set by distinguished American anthropologist Horace Miner in his classic piece: "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema."

This article, an excerpt of which ( I ask my students to read in both my ANTH135 ("Introduction to Cultural Anthropology"--the basic introductory course for our program), and in ANTH445 ("Culture Analysis Seminar"--one of our most advanced, culminating courses), was published in 1956 as a spoof of the portentous and patronizing way even some of the best modern anthropologists described the practices of the "natives" they studied. The name of the group whose "magic-ridden" ways are described in the piece is "American" spelled backwards, but many students do not realize this until we discuss the piece in class, generally greatly enjoying the double-take it triggers, and the important implications of the spoof.

As a follow-up on the class discussion of this piece, students are then asked to write a short essay on the Nacirema, in which they describe some aspect of their own culture as if they were "extra-terrestrial anthropologists" in need to ethnographically document American ways. This stimulates the skill in cultural reflexivity which is essential in anthropology, and it also guides students in understanding the basic principles of ethnography--which include both emotional detachment (eschewing judgment), and intellectual analysis (attempting to understand the possible causes of "strange" practices by culturally contextualizing them). This exercise also leads students to realize that cultural membership is expressed through behavior, and it is by observing, questioning, describing, and trying to understand behavior that cultural anthropologists do research in their discipline.

Attempting to zero in on taken-for-granted, "normal" behavior in one's own culture as if it was typical of an alien group is a real challenge even for advanced anthropology students, but successful responses to the challenge, as in the two examples offered below, confirm the validity of one of the classic definitions of anthropology as "the discipline of the sense of humor."

by Mordechai Sadowsky

by Elizabeth M. Smith

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